By Tanner Corbridge, partner for Partners In Leadership who works with business leaders to create greater workplace accountability and facilitates enterprise-wide culture change. 

There's a remarkably simple and consistent formula hidden within the success of many of the most profitable brands in the world. To recognize the formula, first consider which brands come to mind when you think of corporations that have created a competitive advantage because of their culture.

Ask that question to business leaders and you'll hear some usual suspects: Apple, Disney, Facebook, GE, Google, Intuit, Johnson & Johnson, Nike, Southwest Airlines, Starbucks, Zappos, etc.

Aside from being known for investing in their culture, there is another consistency far more important to shareholders of these brands. What is it? They have each set the benchmarks for profitable growth in their industries, year after year.

When examined closely, the same formula is found in each of them: product/service + good strategy + intentional culture management = magic happens!

In contrast, examine the collective mindset of an executive team leading a floundering organization and you'll typically find they are focused exclusively on the first two components of this formula (product/service and strategy) while ignoring the profound impact of the third component: intentional culture management.

They ignore culture not because they don't know that culture is important but, rather, because they don't know just how important it is, much less how to create and manage it.

So, how do you manage culture? As with any craft, one must first learn the fundamentals before mastering the skill. Here are three fundamentals to consider when becoming intentional about managing culture:

1. Make Culture a Left-Brained Conversation.

Simply defined, culture is the way that people think and act to get things done. Leaders that don't see the link between the current culture and the current results will never have time for the topic.

Understanding that the current culture is perfectly aligned to produce the current results is central to giving it the proper air time on the agenda. Without that link, culture management will always be seen as an ethereal, right-brained exercise that's quickly delegated to HR.

Culture management will remain a topic to which the demands of strategy will never yield. Only when the "culture produces results" link is tattooed on the forehead of every member of the executive team will there be a commitment to valuing culture as much as  strategy.

2. Refuse to Do Poster Campaigns.

Most culture management efforts are limited to placing the definition of the desired culture (core values, winning behaviors, etc.) on mouse pads, screen savers, and posters that are hung by HR.

With little evidence that the culture is real, the definition of the desired state will then be used as a tool to mock the contradictions seen in the current culture. In the end, the effort to change ends up doing nothing to create meaningful behavioral change. Sound familiar?

When poster campaigns are replaced by intentional experiences created by leaders and managers, culture change becomes tactical and real. For example:

  • When leaders intentionally focus recognition in every staff meeting around the desired culture, movement occurs.
  • When they tell stories that illustrate what it looks like to live the desired culture, movement occurs.
  • When they seek and offer feedback focused through the lens of culture, movement occurs.

Culture change becomes left-brained and accelerated when it's the portal through which we conduct performance reviews, hire, promote, run meetings, etc.

The central question that leaders must answer when it comes to culture management is, "Are we really serious about this?" They answer that question by replacing the poster campaign with meaningful culture experiences.

3. Create an Army of Culture Champions.

Perfect modeling of culture management skills has to be the expectation of the executive team, and no one should apologize for expecting this of them!

They will thank you later when everyone else is following their lead. Culture reflects leadership, and leading by example reverberates down the organizational chart. 

The next fastest path to creating champions is to vastly expand the invitation throughout the organization to teach the culture message. Nothing impacts ownership faster than being asked to teach something.

The right message in the hands of an army of line leaders creates remarkable momentum around the change message.

Managing Culture Leads to Success

The most successful organizations and teams in the world understand that culture management is more than throwing a few ice cream parties during the year and having donuts and a microwave in the break room.

Successful organizations commit to creating an intentionally balanced approach between product, strategy, and culture. When they achieve that balance, magic happens.

Published on: Jun 23, 2016
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